University of Alabama in Huntsville Builds and Races To Fifth Win in National Concrete Canoe Competition"

reprinted from

Volume 26, Number 8, August 2001

Skip to Insert: "Great Future Seen For Concrete Mixture Of Winning Canoe"
Skip to Insert: "Employers Use Competitions to Recruit"

Civil engineering students from the University of Alabama in Huntsville outshone their peers from 23 universities and colleges to capture first place at the 2001 National Concrete Canoe Competition, sponsored by ASCE and Master Builders, Inc., of Cleveland.  It was the fifth win for the school since 1988, the first year of the national competition.

Members of ASCE student chapter at the University of Alabama in Huntsville proudly show off their sleek and flexible winning entry in this year's National Concrete Canoe Competition, hosted by San Diego State University.  [click here for a high resolution photo (jpg) of the above]

The Alabama student engineers designed, built, and raced their 76 lb, 22.3 ft Survivor to amass 123 points in this year's competition, which was hosted by the ASCE student chapter at San Diego State University June 14-16.  The unique concrete mixture they developed, in addition to proving again that concrete can float, allowed their canoe to flex and bend.

Team members reported they had to get accustomed to riding a flexible canoe.  Compared with rigid canoes, they said, the difference was as great as that between riding a bicycle and riding a camel.

"It is incredible to see how the students continue to challenge themselves by elevating the quality of their design and engineering technique," said President Robert F. Bein.  "The best engineers not only make the impossible a reality -- they work toward perfecting it."

Mike Shydlowski, the president and chief executive officer of Master Builders, said, "These civil engineering students are gaining problem-solving and project management skills by demonstrating that concrete is a remarkable and versatile building material as they develop innovative concrete mixes that have numerous applications in the building industry."

While the slalom/endurance and sprint races are an exciting part of the competition, they account for only 30 percent of the total score.  The remaining 70 percent is based on a written design proposal; an oral business presentation through which teams market their canoe's design; a three-dimensional exhibit displaying and detailing the design and construction of the canoe; and a phase called the end product, where the finished canoe is presented.  In addition, the students must prove that their canoes do indeed float.

The Alabama team placed first in the written proposal category, second in the final product and racing categories, third for display, and fifth for oral presentation.  It earned $5,000 in scholarship money.  All of the scholarship funds in the competition were courtesy of Master Builders.

The team's closest competitors were Clemson University, the titleholder for the past two years, and Oklahoma State University.  Clemson finished a strong second by earning 117.5 points with its canoe, the 180 lb, 21 ft Good Fortune.  It was the heaviest entry among the 24 national finalists.  The team received a $2,500 scholarship award for its school.

Hard paddling and adroit handling earned Clemson University's students engineers a first-place finish in the sprint and distance races for women.  In the men's races, Clemson's paddlers gave the team second- and third-place finishes.  The team finished first in the coed sprint.

In finishing third, the Oklahoma State University team collected 95.5 points and made an impression with its innovative method for casting the canoe, the 140 lb, 21.5 ft Revolution.  The team used injection molding to fill the hull of the canoe with a grade of latex-modified concrete.  The solid and durable canoe they produced did not require ribs or thwarts.  The team earned $1,500 in scholarship money.

Universite Laval, which has won four of the last seven Canadian national titles, finished fourth.  It was the school's strongest finish since 1996, its first year of participation in the U.S. competition.  The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology rounded out the top five.  South Dakota took top honors in the 1995 competition.  The fourth- and fifth-place finishers were recognized with plaques.

The top five finishers, in descending order, in each competition category were as follows:

Written proposal: University of Alabama in Huntsville, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Clemson University, Oklahoma State University, and Universite Laval.

Oral presentation: University of Minnesota, Colorado School of Mines, Oklahoma State University, Clemson University, and University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Display: Clemson University, Oklahoma State University, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Drexel University, and North Carolina State University.

Final product: Universite Laval, University of Alabama in Huntsville, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, University of Minnesota, and Clemson University.

Racing: Clemson University, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Universite Laval, University of California at Berkeley, and Oklahoma State University. 

The other teams participating in the national competition were California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Michigan Technological University, Rowan University, United States Military Academy, University of New Orleans, University of Oklahoma, University of Rhode Island, University of Texas at El Paso, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Washington State University, and Western Kentucky University.

Founded in 1909 in Cleveland, Master Builders is a leading innovator in the development, manufacture, and marketing of a comprehensive offering of concrete admixtures for producing specialty and high-quality concrete for ready-mix, precast and prestress applications, masonry, paving, and underground uses.

The judges for this year's contest were David Akers, a field engineer for the California Cement Promotion Council; Parry Brown, a principal of Reaveley Engineers & Associates in Salt Lake City; Luanne Fairbanks, an engineer for Montgomery Watson in Las Vegas; Jason Lien, an engineering manager with Rocky Mountain Prestress in Denver; and Kurt Lindorfer, a principal of Paradigm Structural Engineers, Inc., in San Francisco.

"Great Future Seen For Concrete Mixture Of Concrete Canoe"

The unique concrete mixture that helped students at the University of Alabama in Huntsville win this year's National Concrete Canoe Competition might be the next wonder material and might even find its way into spaceships, according to John Gilbert, a team coach and a professor of mechanical engineering at the university.

"There is a really good chance these materials will replace the aerospace materials that are out there now," Gilbert says.  "I think we can make structures out of concrete that are lighter and more flexible than structures made of graphite epoxy composites."

The concrete developed by the student team for its canoe may be suitable for, among other things, supporting telescopes in space and constructing rocket fuselages, lunar colonies, and low-cost emergency shelters on Earth.

"A space station wall or a space telescope mount made of this might be thicker than graphite composites, but it would not necessarily be heavier," Gilbert says.  "The concrete is the lightest part of the mixture.  Since concrete is pretty inert, it would be less vulnerable to things like radiation or atomic oxygen erosion."

The team's flexible concrete is the end product of more than 200 different combination of materials that were mixed and tested.  It is made of Portiand cement, latex, an acrylic fortifier, water, and microscopic hollow spheres known as glass microbeads.  The concrete is so light that it floats and it is flexible enough to bend without breaking.

Survivor, the team's winning canoe, was designed to swim by bending and flexing as it moves through the water.  It was built to store energy by flexing during each paddle stroke and then to release that energy and surge forward between strokes.

"It is an entity that no one has ever reckoned with before," Gilbert says.

"Employers Use Competitions to Recruit"

During the past 14 years, up-and-coming civil engineers have showcased their skills at the National Concrete Canoe Competition, which is sponsored by ASCE and Master Builders, Inc., of Cleveland.  At the same time engineering firms and recruiters have taken advantage of the opportunities the contest offers to scout out young talent in an informal setting.

Over the years, Master Builders itself has recruited a number of participants for jobs with the company.

"We value civil engineering students not only for their technical expertise but also for their analytical and problem-solving skills," says Mike Shydlowski, the president and chief executive officer of Master Builders.  "Through the competition, students have the opportunity to exercise those skills as well as develop new ones, such as marketing and project management.  These are skills many employers value and that the kids don't usually pick up at a summer internship."

Robert W. Bein, ASCE's president, makes a similar point: "Programs like the National Concrete Canoe Competition are especially critical to our profession because they help build their enthusiasm for engineering and the work that lies ahead of them."

While many high-tech executives and Web gurus are finding themselves on the unemployment line, civil engineers are now in high demand.  The market is so good for civil engineering graduates that many are fielding multiple offers, with average starting salaries of $39,000 a year and, in many cases, signing bonuses of as much as $10,000.

This popularity is based on a combination of factors, including a shortage of qualified civil engineers, especially in the construction trade; declining enrollments in civil engineering schools; and the realization that those who do pursue civil engineering are versatile and have a wide range of skills.

Today's civil engineering graduates are entering a field that has seen a decline of nearly 20 percent in the number of engineering graduates since 1986.  This coincides with the beginning of the current construction boom.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics now predicts a 36 percent increase in the demand for engineers by 2008.

Those in industries that traditionally rely on the talents and expertise of civil engineers have long been aware of these employees' attributes.  However, such non-engineering consulting firms as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Booz Allen & Hamilton are now wooing civil engineering graduates, further eroding the small pool of talent.

"This year has been the best job market ever for civil engineers; it rivals the boom years of the high-tech industry," says Dennis McCahill, the director of the construction program at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.  "Many of my students were weighing five to six job offers, mainly from construction companies.  Companies that contacted me after March were out of luck because not a single senior was graduating without having a job already lined up."

McCahill also adds that being able to work as part of a team is an attribute that is acquired through participation in the competition.  "Throughout the year, students gain incredible knowledge of the properties and flexibility of concrete, but it's the ability to work in a team that's their most important lesson," says McCahill.  "Teamwork is an essential part of a civil engineer's work."

Dennis O'Leary, a graduate of Catholic University, limited his search a year ago to three engineering firms.  Months before graduation, he had offers from two and subsequently went with Fulger Pratt Construction, in Rockville, Maryland.

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